Love in Place of Protection
Toni Morrison’s A Mercy deals with life’s biggest problems regarding the choice to love and protect over the ability to stay close to the ones that you love. The end of the novel, narrated by Florens mother, gives key insight to the foundations of the book. She knows, above all else, that the protection of her daughter must come first, leaving Florens scared, alone, but ultimately safe. Morrison weaves a tale that shows how the people in Florens life, together, make up a mother figure, and are ultimately the source of her chosen gained mental freedom at the end of the novel, even though all the while she believes she is alone.
From the very beginning of the novel, it is made apparent that Florens is searching for a mother figure in her life. Parental love and influence are some of the most important shaping factors in a child’s life. Without proper love and affection, children become dissociative, unable to interact with people on a level perceived to be normal. Florens is a little odd because her mannerisms come from so many different role models. From the very beginning, Jacob is perceived as a loose father/ protective figure. He provides her with long awaited stability in her life. Jacob takes Florens in for his own purposes. He sees her as something that hopefully Rebekka “would be eager to have”, but also because he understands what it means to be an orphan and have the possibility of losing your family (Morrison, 37). He states quite upfront that “there is no good place in the world for waifs” (Morrison 37). Even though he doesn’t fully understand why he takes Florens in, with the majority of his intention being for Rebekka, he loosely associates with this young girl and the situation she is in because she is an orphan. There is nothing worse than not having a place of belonging and he associates that feeling. It also allows him to empathize with the lack of motherhood that plays a recurring part in the story. Rebekka can’t be a mother to her children as they keep passing away in front of her, and Jacob lacks anything that remotely relates to a family. Florens mother very deliberately states at the end of the novel that the reason she did what she did in sending Florens away was because Jacob saw her as “human and not pieces of eight” (Morrison, 195). It is recognized by a mother, Florens mother, that this man is the correct choice for her daughter because he will keep her safe and protect her, in a way like any other mother would because he sees her as more than property. It is also apparent that Florens is connected to Jacob throughout the entirety of the story, whether it be through his protection or just in his memories.
Florens has a strange connection with shoes that follows her as she ages. They are all given to her by prominent people in her life, people that she eventually leaves. She wears the heels of Senora D’Ortega shunned by her mother for impracticality, the moccasins of Lina, and the boots of Jacob as she goes to fetch the blacksmith. She sheds the boots in haste, leaving the blacksmith and leaving the life she thought she had; “It is hard without Sirs boots” (Morrison, 184). Her not having the boots anymore represents her growth from a dependent person to an independent one. She is dependent on her mother, but she is given up, she is dependent on Jacob but he dies, and she is dependent on the blacksmith and he casts her aside. She puts her faith in people and walks in their shoes only to eventually be left behind and it is a large part of her setting herself free at the end of the novel, and fulfilling at least a part of what her mother wanted for her in giving her up.
The blacksmith is largely a representation of the love that Florens thinks she needs and absolutely wants within her life. It is different than the love of a parent that she craves, but it is also similar in that she sees it as unconditional acceptance. When Florens is fighting with the blacksmith after injuring Malaik, he accuses her of having a “wild” body and mind, and her reasoning in return is that she “is adoring [him]” (Morrison, 166). She doesn’t understand his reasoning at first because to her, love and adoration are things that she could never turn down, and for him to do so blatantly is a blight on what she understands. For her, it is of the utmost importance that she does feel like she loves this man and that she would drop her life to be with him and continue having that love and affection. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see it the same way because she is not his family. His child is his family, and family being unconditional, comes first. It’s a heartbreaking moment for Florens because it is another confirmation that the only person she truly has is herself. And on top of it all, the blacksmith is doing exactly what her mother did, with the intention of saving and protecting a child, but in both situations, Florens can’t comprehend that. She feels the victim in either scenario, when actually she is the one being saved from a life of abuse and dependency.
Throughout the story, Florens does not understand her personal worth. She spends her life trying to be worthy of others and to show that she belongs to be in their lives, but she doesn’t spend enough time trying to understand, know and accept herself. Her mother speaks of the slaves coming from Barbados after the long journey on their ship; “Now, eyes wide, they tried to please, to show their ability and their living worth”, and after they arrive they are hardened (Morrison. 194). While Florens never made that journey, she spent her whole life being soft and trod on. She doesn’t stand up for herself in the ways that it counts and doesn’t understand until the very end of the novel that her worth is her own. For her to realize that she is a “she-lion” who does not need to care about what others think of her is incredibly eye-opening (Morrison, 187). However, to get to that point it takes a lot for he to get over what she thinks others want her to be. Lina is one of the people in Florens life who acts as close to a spiritual guide as she ever gets. She helps Florens to see the world as it is and to show her the other side where people and the world do shape who you are; “Sir steps out. Mistress stands up and rushes to him. Her naked skin is aslide with wintergreen. Lina and I looked at each other. What is she fearing, I ask. Nothing, says Lina. Why then does she run to Sir? Because she can, Lina answers. We never shape the world she says. The world shapes us” (Morrison, 83). This is a pivotal moment in the novel because Florens has the realization what love can do for people and what it could do for her. She later admits that Lina’s words actually confuse her because she doesn’t think that the world has shaped her, that instead it has been the blacksmith all this time. Unbeknownst to her, though, he doesn’t really shape her until he is no longer in her life.
It is the lack of people that allows her to realize what she needs to do in the face of being sold again. Florens also does not believe that there is anyone for her unless she makes it so. Lina is her constant companion in discussion about spirituality and believes there are “spirits that look over warriors and hunters and there are those that guard virgins and mothers” (Morrison, 80). Florens doesn’t believe that she fits in any of these categories and therefore doesn’t deserve to look for or have any protection. She finds a lot of peace in the idea of spirits watching over her with other people’s assurance, and nearly every time those spiritual guides led her back to the one she thinks she loves, the blacksmith. In many ways, Florens has so many people in her life that are protecting her but they are all doing so from afar and for different reasons. Jacob is her outright protector, giving her land to live on, a family of sorts to call her own. It is a physical kind of protection. Lina gives her the protection of a spiritual guide, and often as a mother, making sure that she has shoes to wear and somewhere safe and dry to sleep. The Blacksmith provides her with the protection of herself. Steering her on the right path so that she can be an individual person and have the capability to keep herself safe when it seems as if there is no one left. And above all, her mother gave her the protection of life. She gave her up and caused so much pain to both herself and her daughter so that she could live a semblance of a life without the torment and abuse that would be out of her control. Florens doesn’t see this in the world around her. She sees people who are keeping her back, people like the blacksmith and her mother casting her aside, but they have gone and given her the greatest gift. Morrison has created a world of characters that fill the void Florens lack of a mother created and the most beautiful part is that it is her mother who is the missing piece to her freedom at the very end, even though Florens will never fully know that.
On Motherhood and Mother Earth-hood: Ecological Constructs in ‘A Mercy’ and ‘Silent Spring’
Environmentally conscious writing can depict gender constructions in so many different ways depending upon what point the author tries to make. For instance, in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson focuses on how the environment impacts women much more than men. In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, the environment acts as a symbol and a metaphor for many different aspects of womanhood and motherhood throughout the novel. Perhaps these authors chose to focus on women so explicitly because, due to the fact that women carry children and are often the primary caretakers, the state of the environment and environmental concerns affect most women more than most men. Motherhood brings about an entirely new set of environmental issues for women that Morrison and Carson are careful not to overlook.
In the article “The Place of Women in Polluted Places,” author Lin Nelson sets up a valid argument about motherhood’s importance in terms of those who become most concerned about the environment. At this point in time, it may seem obvious that environmental health and women’s health are inextricably linked. For instance, Nelson elucidates that, “there are many poorly researched, unanswered questions regarding the impact of environmental contamination on breast cancer, reproductive health, neurological functioning, and allergic diseases” (Nelson 176). While Nelson makes a great point about women’s health over all, she goes on to focus on the “reproductive health” aspect of environmental concern, and the ways in which motherhood and the state of the environment are connected. Later in her article, Nelson explains how, “one of the most sobering aspects of the ecological degradation we endure is the impact on our capacity to bear healthy children” (Nelson 177). Because women are the gender who carries children throughout pregnancy, women have to make many choices about where they spend their time in the environment the moment they know that they will become a mother nine months down the road. Nelson refers to motherhood as a “sobering” aspect of “ecological degradation” because once someone becomes pregnant it all seems clear: she now needs to protect the environment and be wary of environmental issues not only for herself, but for her children as well. It can be easy to disregard one’s own safety, but it becomes more difficult to be willfully ignorant about the safety of loved ones, especially one’s own children.
From pregnancy to raising kids, Rachel Carson covers all the bases as to why mothers should be especially environmentally concerned. As a woman, Carson’s words in Silent Spring focus primarily on women’s issues, which naturally includes issues of rearing children. Carson’s narrative has a unique scientific lense to it that many authors cannot achieve while keeping an interested and keen audience. However, Rachel Carson has such relatable subject matter that people – especially mothers – keep reading. For instance, Carson writes in length about the scientific fact that, “children are more susceptible to poisoning than adults” (Carson 21). This fact brings a mother’s environmental consciousness into a new plane of importance because as a mother, one has more to worry about in terms of the environment’s health and future than just themselves. Therefore, if children are even “more susceptible to poisoning than adults,” mothers will immediately take extra caution to avoid environmental poison for their children. However, as Carson points out in Silent Spring, poison is so much more present than one would think, especially as humans continue to pollute the environment with chemicals that, for some absurd reason, are often still legal in America.
After mothers realize that their children were exposed to certain environmental toxins that are not known to the public, a natural rage occurs. In terms of the overwhelming hormones in milk, one mother asks, “why were not special precautions taken to protect our children who drank milk from local dairies?” (Carson 91). Women with children tend to take every precaution to keep their children safe, but this proves impossible when people in control of companies such as large scale producers of dairy products keep their product’s dangers a secret. While mothers could feel disproportionately guilty about their choices, many tend to become environmental activists, because these environmental problems suddenly feel very close to home. This happens again because suddenly, the mothers themselves are not the ones being hurt, but rather those more important than themselves: their children.
One mother who had so many children wronged by environmental factors is Rebekka in Toni Morrison’s novel, A Mercy. Rebekka has a handful of children, and they all die before they even reach their preteen years. Morrison does a great job of matching the novel’s perspective to that of Rebekka’s. Children do not just drop dead for no reason, so Morrison lets one assume that the environment these children were raised in played a role in their death. She does this through weaving nature imagery into the entire narrative about Rebekka’s children’s deaths specifically. For instance, Rebekka refers to her daughter, “Patrician’s accident [as caused] by a cloven hoof” (Morrison 94). Morrison could have written this child’s death in any way. Kids die from household accidents such as falling down the stairs all the time. However, Toni Morrison made a crafty choice and decided to have a “hoof,” part of an animal, part of nature, kill Patrician. This is no coincidence. Morrison actively wanted nature to be the murderer here, because although A Mercy takes place in a time closer to the Civil War than present day, Morrison is an environmentalist who wants to make the point that not taking care of nature affects mothers.
Morrison goes on to weave environmental imagery into Rebekka’s story to further her point. She uses snow as a common image to depict the coldness and cruelness of Mother Nature when she feels scorned. For instance, after Patrician passes away, Rebekka says to Lina, “I chastised her for a torn shift, Lina, and the next thing I know she is lying in the snow. Her little head cracked like an egg” (Morrison 92). The word “snow” has a lot of different connotations to it. Snow stops everyone in their tracks, the world stops for a day when there is too much snow. Snow is still, more peaceful than rain. Snow is cold and unwelcoming. Snow isolates people in their homes. Perhaps these connotations are why Morrison chose this natural event to surround death. They suggest that nature has the power to emotionally inhibit mothers. Morrison continues to reference snow in this way when she writes that, “at dawn, in a light snowfall, Lina came and arranged jewelry and food on the grave … telling her that the boys and Patrician were stars now, or something equally lovely: yellow and green birds, playful foxes, or the rose-tinted clouds” (Morrison 93). In this quotation, Lina suggests that the environment can be good too, once one has control over it. She suggests that if Rebekka’s children are now part of the environment as “foxes or the rose-tinted clouds,” they can be at peace with it, and nature will no longer hurt them because they are nature.
Morrison, Carson, and Nelson agree that the environment can wreak havoc on mothers when left to its own devices. Nelson and Carson acknowledge this from a biological standpoint, while Morrison turns it into a metaphor suitable to her novel’s plotline. Due to the added consequences for mothers, Nelson, Carson, and Morrison prove that mothers have added reason to be concerned about the state of the Earth’s climate. Perhaps that is one of the many reasons why Earth has always been associated with women.
We’re All in This Together: The Importance of Community as Demonstrated by Sorrow in ‘A Mercy’
In the stereotypical high school hierarchy, jocks always reign over the band kids, theater geeks, and math geniuses. These athletic students separate themselves from the others, and as this occurs, the geeks, nerds and other social pariahs must choose between two options: to remain alone, or to seek the support of others. In general, those who select the former are bullied—so most choose the latter choice. A similar situation arises in A Mercy. Sorrow, a mixed character, finds herself estranged from her black, native, and white counterparts. Rather than going it alone, she takes on the world with Twin, and later her daughter, by her side and survives in a hostile post-colonial America. By including Sorrow in the narrative, then, Morrison exemplifies the importance of community in increasingly alienated populations.
Communities help people maintain their sense of identity, just as Twin and her baby do for Sorrow. After she washes ashore, Sorrow begins her new life in the sawyer’s house, where the housewife names her Sorrow. Although Morrison notes that Sorrow had a different name on the ship, she also mentions that “she did not mind when they called her Sorrow so long as Twin kept using her real name” (116). The Oxford English Dictionary defines a name as “a word or phrase constituting the individual designation by which a particular person or thing is known, referred to, or addressed.” By giving Sorrow a different name, the housewife attempts to alter how Sorrow “is known, referred to, or addressed”—her identity. Sorrow preserves the identity she knows, however, by keeping her birth name a secret. Only Twin, her community, refers to Sorrow using her real name; only her community can remind her of her true self. Later, when Twin disappears, Sorrow finds a new community in her baby. When the Vaark farm begins to fall apart, Sorrow turns her attention completely to her newborn: “She had looked into her daughter’s eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee” (134). As Lina, Mistress, and Sorrow drift away from each other, Sorrow risks losing her sense of self, like many do in times of chaos and confusion. However, unlike the ties that held the farm together, Sorrow’s identity does not disappear. When she looks into her baby’s eyes, she sees “the gray glisten of a winter sea” and “a ship,” elements reminiscent of her early days on the water. By reminding Sorrow of her own beginnings, the baby helps Sorrow regain that sense of self—especially in a world that spins out of control.
Throughout the novel, Twin looks out for Sorrow, demonstrating how communities, likewise, protect the individual. When Sorrow regains consciousness after the shipwreck, “they asked her name, [and] Twin whispered NO, so she shrugged her shoulders and found that a convenient gesture for the other information she could not or pretended not to remember” (118). As mentioned previously, a name represents identity. By warning Sorrow against sharing that part of herself, Twin prevents the sawyer’s wife from taking ownership of Sorrow’s identity. Thus, Twin protects Sorrow’s identity from transformation. Twin not only defends Sorrow’s identity; she also shields Sorrow from her fatal flaw. Later, Sorrow, living in the Vaark household, sees Lina checking the jars of food. She assumes the best, but Twin convinces her otherwise: “Checking the stores, thought Sorrow. No, said Twin, checking you for food theft” (122). Throughout the novel, others take advantage of Sorrow due to her naivety—one of her biggest weaknesses. Twin compensates for this innocence by providing a more realistic and more cautious viewpoint. In this, she teaches Sorrow to take everything at face value and protects Sorrow from her own naivety. Finally, Morrison maintains that communities equate with survival. In a hallucination that she has after she receives treatment for her boils, Sorrow explores her past: “Peeking here, listening here, finding nothing except a bonnet and seagulls pecking the remains of a colt” (126). By including the “seagulls pecking the remains of a colt,” Morrison depicts how people cannot survive on their own. She portrays seagulls, a plural noun, pecking at a dead colt, singular—the group triumphing over the individual. Thus, while people in a community can survive, those who go it alone cannot; therefore, communities protect its members from demise.
Twin stays with Sorrow through thick and thin; when life hits its lowest point, communities provide hope and support. Sorrow’s time in America proves difficult from the start. After the shipwreck, she finds it difficult to step onto land because it “was as foreign to her as ocean was to sheep. Twin made it possible” (126). Using the analogy to sheep, innocent and naïve like Sorrow, Morrison illustrates how frighteningly alien the New World seems to her. Likely traumatized from losing the ship and everyone on it, Sorrow initially fears what she sees a place completely opposite of where she came from. Despite these fears, she steps onto land with the help of Twin. Put simply, Twin provides the support Sorrow needs to conquer her fears. Shortly after this episode, Sorrow wakes up in the sawyer’s house and believes she has died: “That was good news, because Sorrow thought she was [dead] until Twin appeared at the foot of the pallet, grinning, holding her face in her hands” (119). In this instance, Twin takes Sorrow out of a dark place, what many see as the ultimate low—death. Not only does Twin provide reassurance, her presence convincing Sorrow that she is alive, but she also brings hope. For Sorrow, Twin’s presence presents itself as “good news” in dismal times: hope in the dark. Sorrow experiences another low point in her life when her first baby dies. In the aftermath of her child’s death, “Sorrow wept, but Twin told her not to…With no one to talk to, she relied on Twin more and more” (123). As she tells Sorrow not to cry, Twin placates Sorrow and provides moral support. Furthermore, Morrison indicates that Sorrow “relie[s] on Twin more and more.” The author’s repetition of “more” twice illustrates Sorrow’s increasing dependence on Twin after an emotional ordeal. As a result, Twin serves as a crutch—an emotional support.
Morrison’s emphasis on community through Sorrow’s character not only depicts the low status of mixed people in America, but it also reveals the origin story of Twin. Sorrow needs community because of her low position in the social hierarchy. A hybrid, Sorrow cannot fit in with the whites, natives, or blacks; Rebekka, Lina, and Florens all alienate her. Because she doesn’t have other people to turn to, Sorrow must improvise, so she decides to form a group of her own—a mixed one. To create this mixed community, Sorrow imagines Twin, a mirror image of Sorrow. She looks exactly like Sorrow for one obvious reason: the only mixed person Sorrow knows is herself.